The game itself was exhausting to watch; it must have been even indescribably difficult to actually participate in it.
But when you win, all is good. Instead of hiding the bruises, they are displayed with pride. Instead of sheepishly meandering through the hallways on crutches, injured players walk with heads held high, their gait is almost at normal speed.
Thus was some of the post-week carnage of St. Joseph Prep’s thrilling, 49-41 state championship victory over Pine-Richland Dec. 13 at an uncomfortably chilly HersheyPark Stadium.
“That’s a game we will never forget,” said senior Olamide Zaccheaus, who caught three passes for 123 yards, ran for 34 on 10 carries, and scored two of the Prep’s seven touchdowns. “It went back and forth, and it looked like we had it won before they came back.
“But there was no way we were going to blow that lead. We all worked too hard for that to happen.”
Among the many reasons why the Hawks won their second straight state title, finished with an 11-3 record and recorded a 10-game winning streak was a torrid running game that featured four players who gave opponents fits on a steady basis.
Along with Zaccheaus were sophomore phenom D’Andre Swift, easily the state championship’s Most Valuable Player on the strength of a career-best 220 yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries, which elevated him into quadruple figures (1,045 yards) on only 137 totes. And there was junior Benny Walls and his 339 yards on 39 carries overall, and a spiffy 7-for-52 in the state final.
The other component to the Prep’s backfield is manned by senior Jim Bell. As one Prep teammate – his name obscured by dirt stains after a mid-season triumph – said in passing, “Try to find someone who doesn’t like Jim Bell. If someone doesn’t like Jim Bell, there has to be something wrong with that person.”
Along with being one of his teammates’ favorite people, Bell has shown a distinct ability to make big plays when the Prep needs it most.
His final season numbers – 96 carries for a more-than-solid 550 yards and five touchdowns – don’t tell the whole tale of a career that was mired with significant injuries since his freshman season.
This fall, at clutch time, Bell has shined bright. He contributed 97 yards and a touchdown in a Catholic League championship win over La Salle, 113 yards on 15 carries in the District 12 win over Ben Franklin and a combined 126 yards and two touchdowns in the three state tournament victories.
Quite a statement from the Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament grade school graduate.
“I felt I had a lot to prove this year,” Bell said. “When you get hurt a lot, you feel like you’re not contributing at all and that is a lousy way to feel.
“My coaches and teammates were always encouraging me, and I got some chances to do some things. But this year I was able to stay healthy, and that is why I’m happy with the way I played this year. It meant a lot to me to show what I was capable of and to be able to help us win.”
In the state final, the Prep led by 42-21 with 10 minutes left in the game and it appeared as though a blowout was in the making. A fumble, two punts and some blown coverage in the secondary over a span of less than eight minutes later, the Hawks led, 42-41, and Pine-Richland elected to try and take the lead with a two-point conversion instead of tying the game with an extra point.
The Prep’s beleaguered defense, which obviously had relaxed when up by three touchdowns, forced an incomplete pass to keep the lead. With their possession, the Hawks scored to make it 49-41, and then had to survive a hair-raising climax that saw P-R move to the Prep 25-yard line in the closing seconds before a desperation pass was intercepted by Zaccheaus in the end zone.
Game over. State championship secured.
“It was tough at the end, and that isn’t surprising because Pine-Richland has a very good team,” Prep coach Gabe Infante said. “We needed everyone to do their part. We knew that going in.”
In other words, Infante did not look past any contributions – whether it be the amazing performance by Swift, or the workmanlike effort by Bell.
“Jim has played great for us,” Infante said. “We are very blessed to have many runners who can come in and do a great job. Jim is one of them, and I’m glad for him because he has worked very hard and was one of our most important players. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer kid.”
Bell said he has not yet decided on a college. He hopes to play football.
“I love the game,” he said. “I can see myself staying with it in some form. But I think I have a lot of playing time left and I hope that I am able to show what I can do.”
Bell was asked about his affable personality and where it comes from. He just shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m not really sure,” he said. “I just kind of like to go along with things and not get too up or too down. I enjoy being around people and I enjoy being by myself, too. I guess you can say that I am just a happy person.”
A happy person and a heckuva football player. Just one of the many happy tales of a program that has won two straight state championships.
John Knebels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.